Libyan Jews watch battle from afar, with mixed emotions

tripoli, libya  |  What was once the most beautiful synagogue in Libya’s capital city can now be entered only by sneaking through a hole smashed in a back wall, climbing over dusty trash and crossing a stairwell strewn with abandoned shoes to a space occupied by cooing pigeons.

The synagogue, Dar al-Bishi, was once the center of a prosperous Jewish community, one whose last remnants were expelled decades ago in the early days of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime.

Inside Libya, little trace of them remains. Abroad, however, surviving members and descendants of the community are watching with fascination from afar as Gadhafi’s forces and a NATO-backed rebel insurgency battle for control of a country some of them still see as home.

“I have somewhat mixed feelings. I am sympathetic to people who want [Gadhafi] out,” said Libya-born Gina Waldman.

But Waldman, president of the San Francisco–based JIMENA, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, said she was still angry and hurt by the memory of her family’s expulsion from Libya. Those feelings remain strong, she said, and at this point she “would be afraid to go.”

The once-vibrant Dar al-Bishi synagogue crumbles in the walled old city of Tripoli, Libya. photo/ap/ivan sekretarev

Navit Barel, a 34-year-old Israeli of Libyan descent, said the upheaval made her want to visit the country where her parents were born. Her mother and father, now deceased, grew up near the Dar al-Bishi synagogue.

“I feel like it brought back my yearning to talk to my father,” she said.

Libyan Jews seem proud of their heritage and even nostalgic for their ancestral home. But they are also bitter at the mistreatment they suffered at the hands of Libyan Muslims and at the eventual elimination of an ancient native community in a wave of anti-Jewish violence linked to the rise of the Zionist movement and the creation of Israel.

Today, most of the community’s few crumbling remains lie in Hara Kabira, a sandy slum that was once Tripoli’s Jewish quarter.

Inside the synagogue, faded Hebrew above an empty ark where Torah scrolls were once kept reads “Sh’ma Israel” (Hear, O Israel). The floor is strewn with decades of garbage.

What was once a ritual bath next to the synagogue now houses impoverished Libyan families. In a nearby alley, three arched doorways in a yellow facade are decorated with Jewish stars of David. The building was once the Ben Yehuda Jewish youth club. The government now owns it.

Jews first arrived in Libya some 2,300 years ago. They settled mostly in coastal towns such as Tripoli and Benghazi and lived under a shifting string of rulers, including Romans, Ottoman Turks and Italians.

Some prospered as merchants, physicians and jewelers. Under Muslim rule, they saw periods of relative tolerance and bursts of hostility. Italy took over in 1911, and eventually the fascist government of Benito Mussolini issued discriminatory laws against Jews.

In the 1940s, thousands were sent to concentration camps in North Africa, where hundreds died. Some were deported to concentration camps in Germany and Austria.

Their troubles didn’t end with the war. Across the Arab world, anger about the Zionist project in Palestine turned Jewish neighbors into perceived enemies. In November 1945, mobs throughout Libya went on a three-day rampage, burning down Jewish shops and homes and killing at least 130 Jews, among them three dozen children.

After Israel was founded in 1948, it became a refuge for Jews of ancient Middle Eastern communities, including those of Libya. Most were gone by the time Gadhafi seized power in 1969. The new dictator expelled the rest, who were ordered to leave with one suitcase and a small amount of cash.

A community that numbered about 37,000 at its peak vanished.

Today, Libyan Jews and their descendants number around 110,000. A large number live in Israel. None, if any, have a desire to return as residents, but Moussa Ibrahim, a spokesman for the embattled Gadhafi government, said they would be allowed back — if they first disavowed their Israeli citizenship. “They cannot have both,” Ibrahim said.

The Benghazi-based rebel government would not comment on whether it intended to mend relations with the country’s old Jewish community. Spokesman Jalal al-Gallal would say only that there would be “freedom of religion” in a future Libya.

AP writers Matti Friedman and Aron Heller in Jerusalem and Michelle Faul in Benghazi, Libya, contributed to this report.